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Optus: Communicating systematically and transparently

By Elaine Cohen (BeyondBusiness) on January 11, 2010 at 10:25am.

Content:

What has the Genoplesium baueri got to do with VOIP and broadband communications? The answer is on page 51 of this 2009 CSR report from SingTel Optus, a large Australian communications company. The Genoplesium baueri is a threatened orchid that happened to show up at a SingTel Optus proposed worksite in Yerrinbool NSW, Australia. In deference to this special plant, Optus drilled instead of digging trenches (despite the extra expense), and therefore preserved an element of biodiversity in Australia. Is this important? Is this the sign of good Corporate Responsibility? Is it material (enough) for a CSR report? I suspect that this may not be the most material issue that this communications provider has had to contend with during this reporting period, but it certainly is an interesting window on the complexities that companies face when applying responsible business practices in every aspect of their operations. Protecting Genoplesium baueri, aboriginal artefacts, and endangered ecological communities are arguably relatively  minor demonstrations of SingTel Optus's environmental responsibility and impacts, though even a small error in judgement with regard to any one of these could easily cause dissonance with specific stakeholder groups or even a scandal of major proportions. Examples like these make CSR real for readers of the SingTel Optus report, which is otherwise rather staid, straightforward and lengthy.  However, if you take the time to read it in detail, you discover interesting facts, including such initiatives as:

· Used and unwanted billboards from SingTel Optus advertising are shipped to Burma to build temporary shelter and flooring in disaster affected areas.
· ‘Optus Jams’ – weekly interactive dialogue sessions held for all employees for open discussions on all business issues.
· Significant positive response to supporting populations affected by severe bushfires in Victoria, Australia in early 2009.
· A car parking levy for people who use their cars to drive to work without car-pooling or ride-sharing.
· Onsite childcare centre, gym and convenience store at HQ for the work-life benefit of employees
· Partnership with the Australian Wildlife Conservancy to protect threatened wildlife.
· The Optus brand campaign based on the way whales communicate.

SingTel Optus is a wholly owned subsidiary of the SingTel Group, in Australia, and is a leading communications provider. The company employs 10,000 people, turns over around AU$8 billion and serves 8 million customers a day. Optus boasts the largest domestic fleet of satellites in Australia. In fact, the real material story that is told in the Optus CSR report is the company's impact on ‘connecting Australia’, supporting the establishment and development of a communications infrastructure throughout the country, and making access affordable.  Optus boasts a network which reaches 96% of the population with 10,000 kilometres of fibre, 4000 base stations and a range of additional technical facilities in support of the delivery of communications services. The emphasis is on Optus's commitment to expanding services, especially in remote rural areas which have relied on a sole supplier to date. Serving the periphery is often a complex and less profitable part of the business in any country, so this is important when considering responsibility for overall impacts.

In terms of stakeholder engagement, Optus maintains a CLF (Customer Liaison Forum), a group of consumer representatives whose organizations have an interest in telecommunications issues, including representation from a remote periphery region. The Group meets to discuss aspects of Optus policy (CSR Strategy is top of the list) although, despite this apparently open and positive approach, it is unclear exactly what this group actually influences. It would be so much more credible to read about the actual results of this approach, rather than just about the fact that they meet.  What impact does the CLF have? How has it proved its usefulness both to stakeholders and to Optus? What material issues were influenced?  I find it a shame that this is not covered.

Environmental reporting is detailed and of note are the very significant improvements in environmental impacts made over the last years. Worth checking out.

Each report section concludes with a summary of performance against targets and a set of future targets. Very clear and very transparent.

Communication:

This 96 page report by Optus is clear, flows well, and does the job. It is systematic, comprehensive and reasonably well-paced, following a text-book sequence of GRI headlines. The design is modest and does not distract from the content. The GRI index is very detailed, with some of the responses provided in the index itself, and many of the indicators hyperlinked for easy navigation.   The CEO statement is well written and gives insights for further reading. The report is long - some of the content would best be accessed on a website, which would leave the published report to provide more focus.

The Optus report opening pages are best-in-class in terms of clarity and quick appreciation of the breadth of the company's CSR activities. Each of the four core CSR activity areas - Marketplace, Workplace, Environment and Community- has a dedicated page which provides bullet-point headlines of Key Statistics, Achievements, Challenges/Opportunities and 09-10 Key Commitments. This gives a very good overview of the highlights and even material areas of focus for this company. The approach to understanding material issues is mapped out in a general way, and 24 ‘Key Areas for Focus’ are listed as the priorities. They are not plotted on a matrix, so there is no evidence of any sense of priority or scale. Safety of wireless communications and satellites, for example, the first issue you might expect in this sector, is just one on the list in the Marketplace section. I note that the Optus Customer Safety headline refers to the company's self-proclaimed leading role in the development of two industry codes, the Content Services Code and the Mobile Premium Services Code, which are all about protecting customers from undesirable content. Inherent safety of Optus products doesn't get much airtime. But apparently WiFi and satellites impact is not a big issue: "The general conclusion is there is currently no evidence to suggest exposure to low level electromagnetic fields is harmful to human health."  Well, that's a relief.

Credibility:

This is a credible report. It covers a comprehensive range of the company's primary direct impacts. It's systematic. The governance section lists, and in many cases, links to the entire range of policies and codes that Optus adheres to. Another nice touch is the detailed membership, complete with thumbnails, all smiling happily, of the Corporate Responsibility Steering Group, made up of  9 senior Managers (of which 2 are women), which meets twice a year and oversees the company's efforts. I like the ability to put faces to names and job titles, and this is evidence of a good, open approach.  The report also includes areas of difficulty and issues faced by the company – it's not just a good news report.

I think Optus shows great competence at transparently reporting and communicating its performance. What would be nice in future reports would be more focus on how Optus's activities are actually creating a better world: less of what they are doing and more of how they are truly creating change. Which I am sure they are.

Recommendations:

1. Prioritise material issues in a materiality matrix
2. Shorten the report to cover issues of material importance, not everything on the shopping list
3. Focus on the way Optus leverages its influence as a leading provider, with the outcomes, not just the activities.
4. Assurance would increase credibility.

elaine cohen is the Joint CEO of BeyondBusiness Ltd, www.b-yond.biz/en , a leading CSR reporting and consulting firm, specializing in a wide range of consulting services for the development of social and environmental responsibility of businesses.